Catch-up Ball No longer the National League's dominant team, the Braves have had to use grit on the road and even a fortysomething pickup to mount another title run

Sept. 17, 2001
Sept. 17, 2001

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Sept. 17, 2001

Catch-up Ball No longer the National League's dominant team, the Braves have had to use grit on the road and even a fortysomething pickup to mount another title run

Save for a couple of lingering players and the insects that make
their homes in the nooks and crannies of the visitors' clubhouse
at Wrigley Field, Atlanta Braves manager Bobby Cox was alone
early last Saturday evening--only him, a smoldering cigar and
the sweet taste of the Braves' 5-3 victory over the Chicago
Cubs. Having just stepped out of the shower and into his tiny
office, Cox had a towel wrapped around his waist as he reached
for the stogie with his right hand and began humming. Softly, at
first. "Naaaaah-nah-nah-nah-nah." Then louder.

This is an article from the Sept. 17, 2001 issue Original Layout

The 60-year-old Cox, a quiet man (unless the topic is NASCAR),
repeated the tune, over and over and over. It's astonishing to
hear Cox singing the tomahawk chop chant (or anything else, for
that matter). Then again, it's not often this season that he has
had reason to warble.

He had more the next day, when Atlanta pounded out 16 hits and
thumped Chicago 9-5, completing a weekend sweep and maintaining
a 3 1/2-game lead in the National League East over the resilient
second-place Philadelphia Phillies. The Braves, winners of nine
straight full-season division titles, finally seemed to be
waking from a seasonlong slumber that had exposed them as
beatable. Nevertheless, Cox and John Schuerholz, Atlanta's
general manager, still had to face the music. Why did they move
their star third baseman to leftfield? Why on the last day of
August did they sign a vagabond fortysomething Mexican Leaguer
to start at first base? Why can't they win at home? "We are,"
responded Schuerholz, "figuring ourselves out."

"This has been a test, and maybe that's good," says righty
reliever Kerry Ligtenberg of the Braves' failure to take command
of their division this year, and their past shortcomings in the
postseason, when they have won one World Series during a decade
of regular-season dominance. "In the past we'd wrap things up
early and then go on cruise control. Then we'd have to up the
intensity for the playoffs. Now we're taking nothing for granted."

Nor should they. Despite Atlanta's wonderful Windy City weekend,
it had become painfully clear that the Braves, intimidation-wise,
have gone from Godzilla to Mini-Me. "Atlanta's fear factor isn't
a factor anymore," says leftfielder Gary Sheffield of the Los
Angeles Dodgers, who went 5-2 against the Braves this season.
"What made their past teams so successful was the guys who
brought attitudes with them--the Andres Galarragas. They used to
be the type of team that would go out and get whatever they
needed. Now it seems like they're trying to put the pieces of a
puzzle together."

Some of those pieces have been mismatched. The pitching has
remained Atlanta's bulwark. The rotation relies on its two aces,
righthander Greg Maddux, who was 17-8 with a 2.93 ERA through
Sunday, and lefty Tom Glavine (7-2, 2.42 since the All-Star
break), and one of the season's surprises, 36-year-old retread
righty John Burkett (11-10, 2.86). Over the past month erstwhile
starter John Smoltz, still recovering from Tommy John surgery
that had sidelined him for more than a season, has emerged as the
unhittable closer--he'd converted seven of seven save
opportunities--the Braves had needed since trading inflammable
John Rocker to the Cleveland Indians in June. These arms have
made Atlanta the most dominant pitching staff in baseball. The
staff's 3.61 ERA is second in the majors, and its 13 shutouts top
both leagues.

The Braves' attack, however, recalls the 1980s Ken
Oberkfell-Andres Thomas-Terry Blocker Era of Doom. Through
Sunday the Atlanta offense was ranked 13th in the league in runs
per game (4.5). This wasn't the fault of any man but the cruel
injustice of injury. Early in the season Schuerholz was excited
by Atlanta's speed-tipped, power-centered lineup. Then, two
games before the All-Star break, Rafael Furcal, the Braves'
21-year-old shortstop and leadoff hitter, dislocated his left
shoulder while sliding into second base against the Boston Red
Sox. Batting .275 with 39 runs and 22 steals at the time, Furcal
was done for the season. "When Raffy went down, we lost speed,
we lost spark," says Maddux. "That's a hard thing to recover

In early August, Schuerholz released second baseman Quilvio
Veras, who had missed a lot of playing time with a sprained ankle
and a strained rib cage muscle. At his best, Veras is the perfect
number 2 batter, a speedy slap hitter with dazzling baserunning
instincts. At his worst, Veras is on the disabled list. In 2000 a
torn right anterior cruciate ligament limited Veras to 84 games.
Atlanta had traded for him in December 1999, sending second
baseman Bret Boone and first baseman Ryan Klesko to the San Diego
Padres for Veras, first baseman Wally Joyner and outfielder
Reggie Sanders, a deal that must give Schuerholz nightmares in
light of the Braves' anemic offense and the production of Boone
(now with the Seattle Mariners) and Klesko, who through Sunday
had combined for 63 home runs and 236 RBIs.

"This team was constructed with the idea that Furcal would be
the offensive catalyst and spark plug, with Veras hitting second
and getting on base," says Schuerholz. "Those things haven't
happened." To get a table setter, on July 20 Atlanta had to dip
into its minor league system for second baseman Marcus Giles, a
solid leadoff fill-in who through Sunday was hitting .297 but
had stolen only two bases.

The absence of speed at the top of the lineup wouldn't be so
disquieting were the Braves' sluggers producing. Except for third
baseman Chipper Jones (35 homers and 93 RBIs), centerfielder
Andruw Jones (31 homers, 90 RBIs) and rightfielder Brian Jordan
(20 homers, 80 RBIs), Atlanta's lineup packs all the punch of a
glass of skim milk. "We used to be able to count on Andres
Galarraga for 30 to 40 home runs," says catcher Javy Lopez. "Now,
we don't have that. No question, it hurts."

Andruw Jones (.256) was hitting 47 points lower than last year.
Lopez (.256, 15 homers, 57 RBIs) struggled during the first half
of the season, and leftfielder B.J. Surhoff, brought in from the
Baltimore Orioles in July 2000 to help protect Chipper Jones and
Jordan, has been a bust. In a 13-game span extending through
Sunday, Atlanta scored more than five runs twice. Production got
so low that against the Montreal Expos on Sept. 5, Cox started
Ken Caminiti (a midseason import after being released by the
Texas Rangers), who was hitting .232 at the time, at third base
and moved Chipper Jones, who hadn't played the outfield since
1997, to leftfield. Caminiti went 0 for 4, and the Expos romped

The most glaring hole has been at first base, a position that,
throughout Atlanta's run since 1991, had been pridefully passed
on from Sid Bream to Fred McGriff to Galarraga to Klesko to
Galarraga. Last off-season, Schuerholz didn't re-sign the then
39-year-old Big Cat and instead handed journeyman free agent Rico
Brogna a one-year, $1.5 million contract. Brogna hit .248 with
three homers in 72 games, was demoted to third string and retired
in July. He now coaches high school football in Waterbury, Conn.
Cox gave rookie Wes Helms, a third baseman, 47 starts at first,
during which Helms batted .211 with four homers. Caminiti, 38,
who had played exclusively at third in his previous 14 big league
seasons, started 33 games at first and was inept at the plate and
in the field, committing six errors. "That didn't work," says
Schuerholz. "Ken was very uncomfortable. The ball came at him
backward, considering what he was used to at third."

Says Caminiti, simply, "I was not good."

Through Sunday, Braves first basemen collectively ranked 15th
among all National League teams' first basemen in batting (.235)
and 14th in homers (15) and in RBIs (65). A couple of weeks ago
Schuerholz was told by his scouts about an intriguing prospect
playing first for the Mexico City Tigers who had quick hands and
unshakable poise. He led the Mexican League with a .437 average
and then hit .477 in the playoffs. His name: Julio Franco.
According to The Baseball Encyclopedia, Franco is 43 years old.
According to the Baseball Register, as well as several major
league media guides, he's 40. Atlanta didn't care how old he was:
It signed him to a one-year, $450,000 contract on Aug. 31.
Franco, who coyly says that he's 40 and 43, is one of 18 players
age 30 or older on the Braves' 36-man roster.

Through Sunday, Franco had started eight games and batted .250
with a homer and five RBIs. In Saturday's win, he drove in two
runs with a single and double. He also had played nearly flawless
defense. "You look at Julio, and there's no way he can be so
old," says Atlanta outfielder Dave Martinez, no spring chicken
himself at 36. "Clearly he's a man who's kept himself in
fantastic shape."

Franco's physique is amazing. His body looks like that of a
light heavyweight, with thick arms and bulging muscles. On his
first day with the Braves, Franco shocked hitting coach Merv
Rettenmund by swinging his 36-inch, 36-ounce bat onehanded
during soft toss. "To take a real swing like that with a 36-inch
bat... I've never seen anybody do it," says Rettenmund. "That's
extreme strength."

Ten years ago, as Texas's second baseman, Franco led the
American League with a .341 average, but after the 1994 season,
when he hit .319 in 112 games for the Chicago White Sox, he
became a free agent and went unsigned. Since then, he has
traveled around the baseball world, playing two seasons in
Japan, two in Mexico and one in Korea. Except for one at bat
with the Tampa Bay Devil Rays in '99, Franco hadn't appeared in
the major leagues since '97, when he hit .270 for the Indians
and Milwaukee Brewers. "When you are young and natural, you take
for granted the beautiful joy of playing in the major leagues,"
says Franco, who broke in with Philadelphia in '82. "I always
knew God would lead me back, but it was long and difficult. I
was sure I could help someone. To be here, in a pennant race, is
a blessing."

It will take more than Franco's efforts for Atlanta to return to
the World Series. Whereas it used to be that National League
contenders dreaded having to travel to noisy, tomahawk-stuffed
Atlanta-Fulton County Stadium for the playoffs, the Braves no
longer enjoy a home park edge. Through Sunday they were 34-38 at
Turner Field, with the Phillies having come into town for a
three-game series beginning on Tuesday. (The clubs are to play
four games in Philadelphia next week.) Attendance in Atlanta had
dropped to 34,907 per game, the lowest for the franchise since

"Every year I've been here, people have said that we're a boring
team to watch because we rely on great pitching," says Chipper
Jones, who joined the Braves in '93. "I'm not sure I can argue.
From the fans' perspective, we don't play an exciting brand of
baseball. We don't have a big bopper; we don't score a ton of
runs. The majority of Americans need to see 12-10 games, and we
don't offer that. To be honest, I wouldn't want to watch us on
TV, either."

COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPH BY STEPHEN GREEN All out In the seventh inning of last Friday's 3-2 victory, agile Andruw Jones went to great extent to rob Chicago's Ron Coomer of a hit.COLOR PHOTO: CHUCK SOLOMON He's back Spry Franco chipped in with key hits and stabilized the infield defense.COLOR PHOTO: AL TIELEMANS Lost spark The injury to igniter Furcal stalled Schuerholz's master plan.
Ten years ago Franco led the American League in hitting. Since
'95 he has played in Japan, Mexico and Korea.
"This has been a test, and maybe that's good," Ligtenberg says.
"Now we're taking nothing for granted."